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Guest Commentary: Preston resident critiques Chicago planning, creates stir

Fri, Nov 1st, 2013
Posted in All Commentary

David Hennessey

By David Hennessey

What can Southeast Minnesota learn from a book about urban planning and development in Chicago? Actually, quite a bit, partly because it’s co-authored by a Preston native and resident.

“Planning Chicago” by D. Bradford Hunt and Jon B. De Vries (American Planning Association, 2013) examines that city’s planning history back to 1909 when planner and architect Daniel Burnham laid out a sweeping vision for the future. The book, focusing especially on events since World War II, is readable and thorough, and showcases mixed results of Chicago’s development. Surprisingly, many of its insights can apply to rural settings, and De Vries is donating a copy to the Preston Public Library. I think it’s useful reading for anyone interested in the future of our local communities, especially volunteers on any local board, commission, council or committee working on projects for the common good.

DeVries, a former planning consultant to Chicago and now Director of the Marshall Bennet Institute of Real Estate at Roosevelt University, maintains dual residence here and in the Windy City. He is aware of local issues and gave two specific examples of how the new book could help with making public decisions in our region.

“One of the themes of the book,” he wrote me recently, “is the importance of citizens creating a shared ‘vision’...to make decisions for the future of their communities. For example, the debate about the costs of purchasing properties in the flood plain in Preston could benefit from a...long-range plan for the entire riverfront area including recreation, flood control, tourism, and economic development goals.” He also noted that the chapter entitled “Positive Middle-Range Planning” could apply to many communities in Fillmore County looking at “improving riverfronts for new pedestrian and recreation uses, updating zoning to attract new development, and implementing strategies to increase tourism and bicycle use...”

The book was written at the suggestion of the American Planning Association and released in conjunction with its 2013 national conference in Chicago. It’s getting attention. On April 29, Greg Hinz, columnist for Crain’s Chicago Business, called it “provocative,” noting the authors “...cover a lot of territory. Mostly, they are right.” It has received 11 reviews on Amazon (10 gave it five stars, one gave it four) including one by an E. Figel who lamented, “I wish I had known half of the planning history presented...BEFORE I worked as a planner for the City of Chicago during the 2000s.”

Though not referring directly to the book, the Chicago Tribune announced to its readers on October 6: “Today the Tribune begins a new opinion leadership campaign to create a new Plan of Chicago, modeled in the spirit of Burnham’s blueprint for the city’s future...Over the next eight Sundays, the Tribune’s Editorial Board...will present a series of editorials defining the challenges that lie before us and the possible solutions...” This call for a new plan aligns fully with the book’s premise.

For me, the work captures well the traditional tension between planning and development, a tension I witnessed firsthand working as public information specialist at the Saint Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development in the 1980s. I saw planners, the “idea guys,” looking at long-term visions and strategic goals, while developers and many politicians, the “doer guys,” tended to focus on results now. When healthy, this tension can yield successful, coordinated and even stunning results; when not, it often creates piecemeal projects that fall short of their potential.

With its reputation for city machine politics, Chicago is perhaps a perfect setting to see that tension, and the book shows it, often to the extreme. The authors note at one point that planned development agreements “required city council approval, meaning aldermanic privilege often trumped the power of planning professionals in negotiations.” The authors contend that the same city that led the way in urban planning a century ago now too often yields long-term vision to immediate political needs.

Their narrative also reflects the Second City’s driving personality. In its review, the Newberry Library website praised the book for seeing “...the sprawl and scramble of a city always on the make. This isn’t the way other history books tell the story. But it’s the Chicago way.”

Formerly employed by the Saint Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development, David Hennessey has been a member of the Commonweal Theatre ensemble for 16 years.

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